Rethinking the Teaching of Economics

In Photo: French economist Thomas Piketty speaks to students and guests during a presentation at King’s College, central London, on April 30, 2014.

Economists can be a haughty bunch, but a decade of trauma has had a chastening effect. They are rethinking old ideas, asking new questions and occasionally welcoming heretics back into the fold. Change, however, has been slow to reach the university economics curriculum. Many institutions still pump students through introductory courses untainted by recent economic history or the market shortcomings it illuminates.

A few plucky reformers are working to correct that, however, which is a grand and overdue idea. Overhauling the way economics is taught ought to produce students more able to understand the modern world. Even better, it should improve economics itself.

The CORE project—the name stands for Curriculum Open-access Resources in Economics—sprang from 2011 student protests in Chile over the perceived shortcomings of their lessons. A Chilean professor, Oscar Landerretche, worked with other economists to design a new curriculum. He, Sam Bowles of the Santa Fe Institute, Wendy Carlin of University College London and Margaret Stevens of Oxford University painstakingly knitted together contributions from economists around the world into an online text that is free and offers interactive charts and videos of star economists. That text is the basis of economics modules taught by a small but growing number of instructors.

The Economy, as the upcoming book is economically titled, covers the usual subjects, but in a different way. It begins with the biggest of big pictures, explaining how capitalism and industrialization transformed the world, inviting students to contemplate how it arrived at where it is today. Messy complications, from environmental damage to inequality, are placed firmly in the foreground.

It explains cost curves, as other introductory texts do, but in the context of the Industrial Revolution, thus exposing students to debates about why industrialization kicked off when and where it did. Thomas Malthus’s ideas are used to teach students the uses and limitations of economic models, combining technical instruction with a valuable lesson from the history of economic thought.

The Economy does not dumb down economics: It uses math readily, keeping students engaged through the topicality of the material. Early on, students get lessons in the weirdness of economics—from game theory to power dynamics within companies—that makes the subject fascinating and useful, but are skimmed over in most introductory courses.

Teaching the CORE curriculum feels like doing honest work, said Rajiv Sethi of Barnard College, who contributed to the CORE textbook. Academic economists do not hide from students the complications they grapple with in their own research.

Homa Zarghamee, also of Barnard, appreciates having to spend less time “unteaching,” i.e., explaining to students why the perfect-competition result they learned does not actually hold in most cases. A student who does not finish the course, she noted, will not be left with a misleading idea of economics.

Early results are promising. Assessments at University College London found that CORE students performed better in subsequent intermediate courses than non-CORE counterparts. Anecdotally, at least, students seem more engaged in CORE courses and graduate assistants seem less pained by the prospect of teaching them.


© 2017 Economist Newspaper Ltd., London (September 23). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Image Credits: Leon Neal/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

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